The Theatre was an Elizabethan playhouse located in Shoreditch (part of the modern Borough of Hackney), just outside the City of London. Built by actor-manager James Burbage, near the family home in Holywell Street, The Theatre is considered the first theatre built in London for the sole purpose of theatrical productions. The Theatre's history includes a number of important acting troupes including the Lord Chamberlain's Men which employed Shakespeare as actor and playwright. After a dispute with the landlord, the theatre was dismantled and the timbers used in the construction of the Globe Theatre on Bankside.
The Theatre was constructed in 1576 by James Burbage in partnership with his brother-in-law John Brayne on property that had originally been the grounds of the dissolved priory of Halliwell (or Holywell). The location of The Theatre was in Shoreditch, beyond the northern boundary of the City of London and thus outside the jurisdiction of civil authorities who were often opposed to the theatre. This area in the "suburbs of sin" was notorious for licentious behaviour, brothels and gaming houses, and a year later another theatre called The Curtain was built nearby, making the area London's first theatrical and entertainment district.
"This wooden O"
The design of The Theatre was possibly adapted from the inn-yards that had served as playing spaces for actors and/or bear baiting pits. The building was a polygonal wooden building with three galleries that surrounded an open yard. In Shakespeare's Henry V, the chorus' speech describes the theatre as, "This wooden O." From one side of the polygon extended a thrust stage. The Theatre is said to have cost £700 to construct, a considerable sum for the age.
The open yard in front of the stage was cobbled and provided standing room for those paying a penny. For another penny, the audience were allowed into the galleries where they either stood or, for a third penny, could procure a stool. One of the galleries, though sources do not state which, was divided into small compartments that could be used by the wealthy and aristocrats.
The Theatre opened in the autumn of 1576, possibly as a venue for Leicester's Men, the acting company of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester of which James Burbage was a member. In the 1580s the Admiral's Men, of which James Burbage's son, Richard was a member, took up residence. After a disagreement between the company and young Burbage broke out, most of the company left for the Rose Theatre which was under the management of Philip Henslowe.
In 1594, Richard Burbage became the leading actor of the Lord Chamberlain's Men which performed here until 1597. Poet, playwright and actor William Shakespeare was also in the employ of the Company here and some of his his early plays, possibly including an early version of Hamlet (the so-called Ur-Hamlet) were premiered here.
Foundation of the Globe
Towards the end of 1596, problems arose with the property's landlord, one Giles Allen. In consequence, in 1597, the Lord Chamberlain's Men were forced to stop playing at the Theatre and moved to the nearby Curtain. The lease, which had been granted to Richard Burbage and his brother Cuthbert Burbage upon the death of their father, expired the following year. The sight of the deserted Theatre prompted these lines from a minor satirist of the day:
But see yonder,
One like the unfrequented Theatre
Walks in dark silence and vast solitude.
This state of affairs forced the Burbage brothers to take drastic action to save their investment. In defiance of the landlord and with the help of their friend and financial backer William Smith, chief carpenter Peter Street and ten or twelve workman, they dismantled the theatre on the night of the 28th December 1598 and moved the structure piecemeal across the Thames. The pieces of The Theatre were then used in the construction of the Globe Theatre.
No remains of The Theatre survive. Its former site is marked by a plaque at 88-86 Curtain Road, Shoreditch.
The Red Lion
John Brayne, originally a grocer and one of the partners in The Theatre, had built an earlier playhouse in Mile End, called the Red Lion, in 1567. It appears to have been a success, but scant information about it survives.
The Red Lion was a receiving house for touring companies, whereas The Theatre accepted long term engagements, essentially in repertory. The former was considered a continuation of the tradition of playing at inns, the later a radically new form of theatrical engagement.
There is no evidence that the Red Lion continued beyond the summer of 1567, although the law suit, from which we know much of the little we know of it, dragged on until 1578.
The Swan was a theatre in Southwark, London, England, built between 1594 and 1596, during the first half of William Shakespeare's career. It was the fourth in the series of large public playhouses of London, after James Burbage's The Theatre (1576) and Curtain (1577), and Philip Henslowe's Rose (1587-8).
The Swan was located on the west end of the Bankside district of Southwark, across the River Thames from the City of London. It was at the northeast corner of the Paris Garden estate that Francis Langley had purchased in May 1589, east of the manor house, and 150 yards south of the Paris Garden stairs at the river's edge. Langley had the theatre built almost certainy in 1595-6. When it was new, the Swan was the most visually impressive of the existing London theatres. Johannes De Witt, a Dutchman who visited London around 1596, left a description of the Swan in his Observationes Londiniensis. Translated from the Latin, his description identifies the Swan as the "finest and biggest of the London theatres," with a capacity for 3000 spectators. It was built of flint concrete, and its wooden supporting columns were so cleverly painted that "they would deceive the most acute observer into thinking that they were marble," giving the Swan a "Roman" appearance. (De Witt also drew a sketch of the theatre. The original is lost, but a copy by Arendt van Buchell survives, and is the only sketch of an Elizabethan playhouse known to exist. If the Lord Chamberlain's Men acted at the Swan in the summer of 1596—which is possible, though far from certain—they would be the actors shown in the Swan sketch.) When Henslowe built the new Hope Theatre in 1613, he had his carpenter copy the Swan, rather than his own original theatre the Rose, which must have appeared dated and out of style in comparison.
In 1597 the Swan housed the acting company Pembroke's Men, who staged the infamous play The Isle of Dogs, by Thomas Nashe and Ben Jonson, the content of which gave offense for unknown reasons. Jonson was imprisoned, along with Gabriel Spenser (an actor) in the play, and others. Langley, already in trouble with the Privy Council over matters unrelated to theater, may have exacerbated his danger by allowing his company to stage the play after a royal order that all playing stop and all theaters be demolished. This order may have been directed at Langley alone; the other companies, the Lord Chamberlain's Men and the Admiral's Men, had been authorized to return to the stage by October.
Because both court and city were interested in limiting the number of acting troupes in London, and because there was, consequently, a glut of large open-roof venues in the city, the Swan was only intermittently home to drama. Along with The Isle of Dogs, the most famous play to premiere there was Thomas Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, performed by the newly-merged Lady Elizabeth's Men and Children of the Queen's Revels (the troupe that had been associated with the Blackfriars Theatre before 1608) in 1613. The theater offered other popular entertainments, such as swashbuckling competitions and bear-baiting, and by 1632 it had been pulled down.
The Curtain Theatre was an Elizabethan playhouse located in Curtain Close, Shoreditch (part of the modern Borough of Hackney), just outside the City of London. It opened in 1577, and continued staging plays until 1622.
The Curtain was built some 200 yards south of London's first playhouse, The Theatre, which had opened a year before, in 1576. (It was called the "Curtain" because it was located near a plot of land called Curtain Close, not because it had the sort of front curtain associated with modern theatres. Elizabethan theatres had small curtained enclosures at the back of their stages; but the large front-curtained Proscenium stage did not appear in England till after the Restoration.)
Little is known of the plays performed at the Curtain or of the playing companies that performed there. Its proprietor seems to have been one Henry Lanman, who is described as a "gentleman." In 1585 Lanman made an agreement with the proprietor of the Theatre, James Burbage, to use the Curtain as a supplementary house, or "easer," to the more prestigious older playhouse.
From 1597 to 1599 it became the premiere venue of Shakespeare's Company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, who had been forced to leave their former playing space at The Theatre after the latter closed in 1596. It was the venue of several of Shakespeare's plays, including Romeo and Juliet (which gained "Curtain plaudits") and Henry V. In this latter play the somewhat undistinguished Curtain gains immortal fame by being described by Shakespeare as "this wooden O." The Lord Chamberlain's Men also performed Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour here in 1598, with Shakespeare in the cast. Later that same year Jonson gained a certain notoriety by killing actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel in nearby Hoxton Fields. The Lord Chamberlain's Men departed the Curtain when the Globe, which they built to replace the Theatre, was ready for use (1599).
As far as is known, Lanman ran the Curtain as a private concern for the first phase of its existence; yet at some point the theatre was re-organized into a shareholders' enterprise. Thomas Pope, one of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, owned a share in the Curtain and left it to his heirs in his last will and testament in 1603. King's Men member John Underwood did the same in 1624. The fact that both of these shareholders belonged to Shakespeare's company may indicate that the re-organization of the Curtain occurred when the Lord Chamberlain's Men were acting there.
In 1603 the Curtain became the playhouse of Queen Anne's Men (formerly known as Worcester's Men, and formerly at the Rose Theatre, where they'd played Heywood's A Woman Kill'd With Kindness in February of that year). In 1607 The Travels of the Three English Brothers, by Rowley, Day, and Wilkins, was performed at the Curtain.
The ultimate fate of the Curtain is obscure. There is no record of it after 1627.
A modern plaque marks its site today, in Hewett Street off Curtain Road.